Name: Craft Beer Market English Bay
Location: 1795 Beach Ave., Vancouver
Cuisine: West Coast pub fare
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$25; mains, $18-$28
Additional information: Open daily from 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on weekends) to midnight. Reservations available. Covered patio.
Here we are at Craft Beer Market, the latest “premium-casual” chain restaurant to hunker down in English Bay, perched on a second-floor patio with a retractable roof.
The view, looking out over sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and, um, the Cactus Club Café, is stunning.
The vintage Volkswagen mini bus parked in the corner is adorable.
And the buzz from midriff-baring twentysomethings slamming $5 bourbon shots is invigorating.
If we could just focus on the sunset and get the Depeche Mode blaring in the background turned down a few decibels, the setting would be almost idyllic.
Sadly, I can’t stop staring at the pizza on the table beside us. I am actually obsessing over the flat dough, which looks every bit as pale, gummy and undercooked as the one served to us a few weeks ago.
“How’s your pizza?” I ask the young man devouring it.
“Great!” he enthuses.
Well, considering that he also just dunked a fraperol spritz slushie in his hazy IPA, I don’t think our tastes are aligned.
But how is he – or any other West Coast kid weaned on the premium-casual chain restaurant hegemony – ever going to learn that a thick-crust pizza should not be served raw if the poor button pushers in the kitchen who call themselves cooks still haven’t figured it out?
It’s not as though the ovens were just fired up yesterday. At the time, the restaurant had been open for four months. Pizza comprises a large share of the menu. And it is, despite what our neighbour says, one of the worst pies to come out of a pandemic during which new pizza concepts exploded.
Craft Beer Market is a Calgary-based, modern beer-hall concept with mega-sized proportions (this behemoth is 11,000 square feet) and a dedication to regional microbrews (all 11 locations, from here to Ottawa, boast 100+ draft taps).
This is Vancouver’s second Craft Beer Market (the first is in Olympic Village). The doors opened in late March, replacing The Boathouse, in a prime waterfront space, which had sat dormant for 3 ½ years.
From a business perspective, the launch was great for the West End. It’s big, it’s busy, it raises a foot-traffic tide that has been sinking without the usual seasonal tourist deluge and helps float all the other boats.
But for foodies, it doesn’t offer anything new or particularly enticing. This is the fifth large chain-style restaurant in the hood, if you count Stanley Park Brewing, which opened in the summer of 2019. The menus are all beginning to blur into a similar mix of burgers, sticky ribs, poke bowls and fish tacos.
And in the larger industry picture, it represents some troubling trends.
We’ve all heard about the acute labour shortage afflicting restaurants. Staffing doesn’t appear to be a problem at Craft Beer Market. Perhaps this is because, as I’ve heard anecdotally, workers across the city fled smaller restaurants in droves to work here, where the hours were more stable and the wages likely higher.
Upon walking in, guests are greeted by a small army of hosts: one at the front door, a second at the reservation and takeout stand, a third at a station at the top of the stairs and a fourth that escorts you to your table. It’s a slick operation, all connected by hidden ear buds that keep the staff in constant communication.
Unfortunately, no one bothered to loop in the bathroom attendants. Or perhaps there are no bathroom attendants because on all three visits the state of the unisex facilities was a disgusting, filthy mess. I am talking vile. The floors were littered in soiled paper towels, the counters were covered in powdery, white residue and the toilets were smeared with excrement.
“Oh my God, do you work here?” asked one gentleman, gagging through his hands while backing out of a stall.
No, but if I did, I’d be ashamed.
The bar’s draft taps are, thankfully, much better maintained. And the expansive beer list is impressive, reaching from California (Lost Coast Peanut Butter Milk Stout) to Delta, B.C. (Four Winds Nectarous Sour) and everything in between.
There are also ciders, coolers, decent B.C. wines and good-enough cocktails, including lime margaritas in takeout pouches, which the restaurant began advertising, through social-media influencers, as available for purchase in early May – two months before cocktails-to-go were legalized.
To be fair, many smaller restaurants were also selling bottled cocktails, but not so overtly and in plain sight of a heavy police presence that was supposed to be enforcing liquor laws on the beach.
The kitchen skirts some rules of its own. When I asked what kind of “sustainably raised” salmon was being used for the West Coast salmon bowl, which is stamped with a certified Ocean Wise logo, the server said she’d have to check.
“It’s farm-raised Atlantic salmon, but definitely raised on the West Coast,” she later informed.
Interesting, because farm-raised Atlantic salmon is definitely not Ocean-Wise recommended.
In addition to its more cookie-cutter menu items (massive nacho platters served on the sliced tops of beer kegs, Nashville hot cauliflower encased in greasy pockets of soggy batter, kale salads so tough and fibrous they’re hard to chew), Craft Beer Market features a number of celebrity chef collaborations to buff up the “premium” experience.
Vancouver Iron Chef Alex Chen has created a very crushable burger with double patties and bacon aioli, though his kung pao lettuce wraps are cloyingly sweet, oddly gamey and only a few steps up from a food-court rendition. I imagine his cheffy finesse has been lost in development – because he cooks infinitely better comfort food for takeout through Boulevard Provisions.
But the wedge salad from Calgary’s Connie DeSousa, at $18, is a bland rip-off. At this price, the kitchen could at least towel dry the blocked-sized portion of iceberg lettuce topped with a few sad pieces of cheese so it isn’t served soaking wet, or perhaps loosen it up into smaller wedges so the musky green-goddess dressing can at least penetrate a few leaves.
Times are tough and I hope the celebrity chefs were compensated handsomely.
But if this is the future of the industry – with small, independent restaurants falling like dominoes when the federal rental subsidies run out – we are all in trouble.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.